John Tavares scored twice to end an eight-game scoring drought, Alexander Kerfoot found the scoresheet again, and the Maple Leafs held down the fort in Nashville thanks to strong defensive play and some great goaltending courtesy of Joseph Woll.
Considering the Leafs were playing in the second half of a back-to-back — with travel and with an early start — this ended up being near as business-like of a road win as we could ask for.
Your game in 10:
1. Much like the previous night, the Leafs were taking a beating in the shot column early on. The shots on goal started 10-1, and the shot attempts started off 14-1, both in favour of Nashville. There weren’t any especially dangerous scoring chances amongst them, but Joseph Woll was given plenty of opportunities to settle into the game.
The Leafs started to get a bit of momentum back thanks to the top line as Auston Matthews generated a chance in front after driving to the net and using one hand to direct the puck on goal, forcing a rebound.
2. As the Leafs started to get their legs back underneath them, there were some chances coming from unlikely sources.
Mark Giordano carried the puck down low and put it out front multiple times, the second of which nearly resulted in a William Nylander goal. Noel Acciari also had a good opportunity from the right circle that was kicked away, and Zach Aston-Reece had a chance from the low slot on an odd-man rush.
The Leafs didn’t break through, but the depth pieces were helping to generate momentum and put the Predators on their heels a little bit.
At the other end, Woll still had to make a big glove save as a Nashville defender found a good scoring chance heading downhill with bodies in front.
3. Toronto was able to open the scoring before the end of the period. Following a tripping penalty against Nashville, the Leafs’ top unit went to work.
Following a one-timer that went just wide, William Nylander was able to buy some time and cycle back to the point to reset the structure of the power play. From there, Mitch Marner swung the puck back to the point as he skated behind the goal, where he started a picture-perfect tic-tac-toe play from Matthews to Marner to John Tavares in the slot to make it 1-0 Leafs.
PERFECT POWER PLAY PASSING 🤌 pic.twitter.com/BhSVNBnvQW
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) March 26, 2023
The Leafs nearly scored again right away as the fourth line came inches away from burying a scramble chance in front after T.J. Brodie put the puck on goal through traffic. Unfortunately, the puck ended up going just wide and the first period ended with the Leafs up by one.
4. The second period started off with a bang as John Tavares picked up the puck at the Predators’ blue line, spun, and beautifully threaded it cross-ice to Alexander Kerfoot, who was flying up the ice with speed.
Coming in off the rush, Kerfoot didn’t hesitate in letting the shot go — something he’s often shied away from this season — and he ripped it past Kevin Lankinen.
LET IT FLY FOOTER 🎯 pic.twitter.com/uZXxNiz8j2
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) March 26, 2023
That’s now the second goal in three games after going scoreless in 25 straight games for Kerfoot. Sheldon Keefe favours #15 as an elevator player capable of complementing his top lines with defensive responsibility and transition ability, but it’s important that he finds his offensive touch if he’s going to play in those situations.
It’s encouraging to see him come to life offensively and show this kind of confidence to simply beat a goaltender cleanly in an opening created by the elite skill of #91.
5. For a good 10-12 minutes of the second period, there wasn’t much happening in this game. Both teams were stuck to the outside in the offensive zone, unable to generate any significant scoring chances.
That changed after Wayne Simmonds ran over Lankinen and took a penalty. The Predators didn’t score with the man advantage, but they threatened with multiple grade-A chances. Somehow, despite some leaky penalty killing, Woll was able to hold the fort down, making a few really nice saves and escaping the puck getting behind him after a cross-crease pass. Just after the penalty expired, Nashville broke in again, with a shot going off the far post.
After Auston Matthews drew a penalty, the Leafs generated a few more chances themselves. Just after the power play expired, David Kämpf had a really good chance with a backhand shot from just outside the crease. Calle Järnkrok also had what looked like a guaranteed goal after receiving a pass on a 2v1 from Matthews, but Lankinen slid across to rob him.
6. Holding a 2-0 lead on the road in the second half of a back-to-back, the Leafs predictably set out to play low-event hockey in the third: hold possession as much as possible, keep everything to the outside, and above all else, help out the goalie with his clean sheet.
Through the first dozen minutes of the third, next to nothing of significance happened. Joe Woll had to make a great save on a 2v1 that ended with Jake McCabe taking a penalty, but it was a really calm game script, which is no doubt something Sheldon Keefe was pleased with.
7. Unfortunately Woll’s shutout bid came to an end. After John Tavares took an interference penalty to avoid an odd-man rush against, the Predators broke through with the man advantage. Old friend Tyson Barrie picked the puck at the point and fired a snapshot on net that was deflected in front and past Woll.
In a somewhat surprising move, Keefe opted to use his timeout to settle things down on the Leafs’ bench — maybe a little surprising knowing the Leafs were the better team, generally close out games well, and still held the lead, but perhaps there were some thoughts back to the forfeited lead in Ottawa in the second half of a back-to-back situation last weekend.
The Leafs responded with a few strong shifts afterward.
8. It didn’t take long for the Leafs to regain their multi-goal lead. After William Nylander took a high stick to put the Leafs back on the power play, the top unit once again went to work with efficiency.
After an Auston Matthews one-timer was stopped, Morgan Rielly put a slap shot of his own on net. The initial shot was stopped, but John Tavares buried the rebound from his office in front of the net.
JOHNNY ON THE SPOT 🚨 pic.twitter.com/4tzEpDAll8
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) March 27, 2023
9. In the final few moments, it was the Leafs that were generating better offensive chances. However, Nashville didn’t go away quietly.
Joe Woll made an incredible save with the right pad on a chance in front. The Predators regained possession and cycled the puck back to the point, where Barrie fired another shot that was deflected in, this time off a Leaf in front.
Two deflections were the only way Nashville could solve Woll in this game as the Leafs held on for a 3-2 win.
10. As it stands, the Leafs now sit seven points up on the Lightning with a game in hand. Home ice in the first round hasn’t been clinched, but it’s pretty difficult to envision a realistic scenario in which Tampa Bay overtakes them for second in the Atlantic. The final nine games matter more for the process of how the Leafs are winning games, staying healthy, and finalizing the playoff lineup.
The defensive pairings have some sorting through in store, but surely the Jake McCabe –TJ Brodie pair is continuing to solidify itself in Keefe’s eyes. That duo just completed a really solid weekend with a ridiculous 96% of the expected goals in over 16 minutes of five-on-five ice time tonight — conceding just .05 of an expected goal and generating 1.33 — after owning 84% of the xGF in Carolina. McCabe is not the exact same player as Muzzin, but we know this is the type of pairing Keefe has assembled for shutdown minutes in a playoff series before with Muzzin-Brodie.
Järnkrok-Matthews-Marner seems likely to stay together for the foreseeable future (99% of expected goals in this game!). Tavares and Nylander will presumably remain a unit as well, and Keefe knows what he has in the Kerfoot option there; it’s notable that this line was much improved tonight over the game in Carolina with Kerfoot swapped onto it in place of Michael Bunting.
Ryan O’Reilly returns to the lineup in the next week or so, though, which greatly changes the composition of the middle six, and Matthew Knies is also surely going to get an audition when his season ends. Lots to be decided still even if the positioning in the standings is all but a formality.